Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Ryan, and Marisa Tomei in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (dir. Sidney Lumet, 2007).

It's to Sidney Lumet's credit that I got all the way to the end of this before I realized how bad it was, and why. The film looks great, the cast is phenomenal (well, except for Ethan Hawke), and Lumet treats the material like it's worthy of his and our attention for some reason. The end result is a feeling of being profoundly cheated out of what this cast and crew (minus screenwriter Kelly Masterson, who has got to be some producer's kid or something), might have done if they had had a decent script to work with. The tremendously talented Amy Ryan is treated the most unconscionably by the script: all her lines are some variation on "Pay your fucking child support." Even Albert Finney's heroic attempt to express pain at the loss of his character's wife is compromised by the flat dialogue he's forced to recite.

One of the many problems with said script is that it begins with the premise that people behave heartlessly towards each other, which is a fine first step, and then goes absolutely nowhere beyond that. The premise stops being a premise and becomes just a stunted point of view. Nothing anyone says in the film suggests the smallest grain of moral awareness. Which is the same as saying that when one of them is cruel to another, we neither believe in their cruelty, nor in the pain others feel as a result of it. Nor is there any wit--any--to counteract the unwavering sourness. Some critics have called the film nihilistic, but this is giving it too much credit; the characters' depthlessness evinces not a world view, but simple writerly ineptitude.

Marisa Tomei is the most telling register of the story's bankruptcy. I'm not sure whether she can really act or not, and this has never kept her from being one of my favorite actors. But this movie forces her to express feelings that aren't there to be felt, and you can see her sniffing around for them like a deer in the forest, finally giving up and resorting to a series of pouts and nose-wrinkling maneuvers. Those will be what I remember most about this film, for better or worse.

1 comment:

kyle said...

i didn't think this film was as awful as you did, but i did leave the theater very frustrated, as i recall. i don't think lumet gets a complete pass, either. the subtitles (if that's what they're called... i think there's actually another word for it but i can't remember it at the moment) that announce where we are in the timeframe were annoying. in fact, i thought the whole film's structure was kind've annoying.

but the acting was great, and marisa tomei has an unbelievable set of tits.

glad you finally got to see this. i was curious what you'd think of it.